A Boeing 757, one of a new generation of quieter, fuel-efficient jets, made a test flight into National Airport yesterday as part of the Federal Aviation Administration's consideration of whether to clear the plane for regular service at the airport.
The test drew fire from an umbrella group opposed to use of the 185-seat jet, because the FAA gave little advance notice of the plane's flight. "For them to have sneaked a test in there is really an act of bad faith," said Eric Bernthal, president of the Coalition on Airport Problems.
The 757 touched down on National's main runway at about 10:30 a.m. The twin-engine plane seemed significantly less noisy than other jets to people at the terminal and under the flight path.
The jet was a member of the Eastern Airlines fleet, which has proposed using 757s on flights from National to Atlanta and Florida. Though not a wide-bodied plane, the 757 is larger and can carry more people than any plane now operating at National.
Eastern chief pilot Tom Buttion, who piloted the plane yesterday, said he deliberately came in from the north to test its performance on National's tricky downriver approach, which requires pilots to zig-zag at low altitude to follow the Potomac's course and to make a sharp right turn over the 14th Street Bridge.
Buttion said the plane was "extremely stable" at low speeds, and actually maneuvered better than other jets using the airport. "It does an outstanding job," he said.
Questions of whether the 757 can operate safely on National's runways and flight paths are being answered mainly through computer simulators, FAA officials say. The main purpose of yesterday's test was to see if the 757 would pose problems for ground facilities such as taxiways, gates and fire-fighting gear, according to airport director Jim Wilding.
The Coalition on Airport Problems has questioned whether the 757 can operate safely on National's relatively short runways and overrun areas. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) has asked the FAA to give the concerns further consideraiton.
The coalition charges that a 757 might crash if one of its two engines fails during take-off. It also says that many pilots feel that the largest plane now using the airport, the Boeing 727-200, already stretches the airport's facilities to the limit.
Last year the FAA denied a request from Eastern to use the A-300 Airbus at National. One reason given by the FAA was that the twin-engine plane might not be able to recover if it lost an engine during take-off.
The 757 is also a two-engine plane, which pilots often compare to the Airbus in terms of its handling. FAA officials say the 757 will not be allowed into National unless it fully conforms to FAA safety standards. Safety questions aside, coalition members also argue that new and larger planes should be denied access to National to send a firm signal to airlines that they should reduce operations at National and develop service at the under-utilized Dulles International Airport.
Boeing and Eastern, however, have said that neighborhoods near National stand to gain from the 757, because it would replace planes that are significantly noisier.